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The swift

David Chapman / 14 May 2018 ( 19 June 2019 )

The swift is a fascinating bird that sleeps, eats and breeds on the wing, only stopping to raise young.

The swift
The swift photographed by David Chapman

The swift (Apus apus) leads an adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle, hardly ever coming to rest, but when it does it needs our help.

We tend to speak of swifts in the same breath as swallows and sometimes even martins but they are not related. Swifts and swallows are tied in our minds by their arrival in the UK each spring and their love of the open skies, where they hunt insect prey on the wing, but swifts and swallows are very different birds in appearance and behaviour.

By the time we get into May most of our swallows will already be back on their territories but swifts return later only beginning to arrive in the UK at the start of May. Whilst swallows tend to live in the countryside, classically nesting in barns and hunting for insects around farmland, swifts opt for more urban settings, nesting in old buildings and seeking their prey in the skies around villages and towns.

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Identifying swifts

Swifts are instantly recognisable. They are dark all over, save a slightly lighter throat patch. Their tails are short with a shallow fork and their wings are long and narrow forming a distinctive sickle-shape when the bird is in full flow.

Swifts love hot sunny days when they soar high in the sky, usually in large loose groups, and because they like it hot they stay in Britain for a relatively short time in summer and will be leaving us in August, making them one of our shortest-staying summer visitors, but while they are here they like to make themselves heard! The swift, once known as the devil’s bird, has a piercing scream quite unlike any other British bird and groups of swifts are rarely silent when they tear up and down the streets of our villages and towns.

Swifts on the ground

Swifts are masters of the air but they are literally helpless on the ground. Their legs are small and can only support the bird when clinging to a vertical wall. If a swift accidentally comes to ground it probably won’t be able to get airborne again because its legs are too weak to provide the initial jump required for take-off.

Swifts in the air

Unique amongst British birds, swifts do everything, except nesting, on the wing. From the point that a young swift fledges from its nest it will not touch down again until the following year when it starts to make a nest in which to raise its own young. Amazingly swifts sleep on the wing by shutting down one half of their brain at a time. They mate on the wing; feed on the wing and even collect nesting material on the wing. Their nests are made from plant material caught when it blows in the wind, cemented together with their own saliva.

Breeding and nesting habits of the swift

Swifts pair for life and usually meet up at the same nesting site every year. They lay two or three eggs which take about three weeks to hatch. In a good year the youngsters can be ready to fledge the nest after about six weeks. There are occasions when young swifts leave the nest too early. If they make such a misjudgement and end up on the ground their chance of surviving without help is very small. Anyone finding a young swift on the ground should put it into a dark box, keep it warm and take it to a wildlife hospital (or similar) to be reared and released.

If you live in a village or town with plenty of old, particularly tall buildings there is every chance that you might have swifts nearby. They like to nest under the eaves of buildings where there are gaps big enough to enter and they can be encouraged to use specifically designed nest boxes, with oval-shaped entrance holes, erected high on the walls of your house. This is most likely to be successful if there are already swifts in the vicinity.

Numbers in the UK

It is important that we try to help swifts because their numbers have been declining in the UK. Their breeding population is down by about 50% in the last twenty years and part of this is due to the loss of suitable nest sites. The old buildings in which swifts can find holes are being demolished or developed into properties which lack the holes they need to make nests.

To try to understand the situation better the RSPB are undertaking a swift survey and would like to receive records of swifts nesting in your area.

You can help swifts by buying or building a special nestbox, find out how to make your own below.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.